If the Internets were so inclined, they could probably write a pretty good biography on you.
They know which pages you browse, which searches you run, which products you buy, which pictures and movies you look at, which blogs you read and more, not to mention the fact that they have your social security number, credit card number, home address and other scary-specific private information floating around somewhere inside them. They know what you like; they know what you don’t like; they know who you are.
Perhaps the only reassurances that we, as users of the World Wide Web, have are the following:
1) We browse with at least some anonymity through our IP addresses, which, hypothetically could be being used by anyone,
2) Many companies promise-promise-promise that the information that you submit will never be used for the forces of evil,
3) There are millions of us browsing billions of sites… nobody would single us out, right?
Well, the news today is that MySpace is going to begin using personal information to advertise to its users. Do you like movies? Prepare to see a lot more Netflix ads when you login. Are you a big sports fan in Philadelphia? What a coincidence because ticket brokers in your area and stores that sell Eagles merch are going to be all over your home page! MySpace–under the guise of getting better, more interesting ads to its users and providing a more targeted audience for its advertisers–is going to begin using the information that you enter on your page to help sell you stuff that you may or may not want.
In the linked AP article, Peter Levinsohn, the head of Fox Interactive Media which runs MySpace spoke of a user named “Jill” that blogs about the hot, new items that make her wish list. Levinsohn goes on:
“[Jill] even goes so far as telling us she needs new boots for the fall. How would you like to be an advertiser selling boots to her?”
He’s right: if you read Jill’s diary, you’ll know exactly what she wants for Christmas. The problem is that you’re reading Jill’s diary, which is wrong… right?
One could argue that by airing her laundry (both clean and dirty), Jill has foregone her right to privacy. The information, now on her MySpace page, is in the public domain and if MySpace uses that information in a manner as benign as showing Jill better ads, then there is no violation being perpetrated. After all, Jill already sees ads all over MySpace and maybe she’s too young for a mortgage quote, the current ad on her home page. What does Jill care if that same ad space now displays those new boots she wants so badly?
Whether Jill knows it or not, she really should care. After all…
â€¢ Jill isn’t making the information truly public; she is making it public to her friends and peers. Perhaps, she has even blocked her page from the prying eyes of people who aren’t her friends. That would hardly count as making your information public, right?
â€¢ Jill may not be old enough to be accountable for the responsibility of knowing how to keep her private information to herself. After all, at least 1 in 9 MySpace users are under 18. This figure is likely a low estimate, as many young people lie about their age so that they can participate in all aspects of MySpace, some of which are restricted from minors.
â€¢ Jill may not realize the implications of sharing her information online. There are no mandatory educational seminars for first-time MySpace users. MySpace could very easily slip a line or two about using Jill’s information into a lengthy, “just click it and move on” styled terms of service agreement when she creates her account.
â€¢ Jill has no reason to trust that MySpace is going to restrict usage of her information to the placement of better ads on her site. Once MySpace discovers how valuable this information can be, what is to stop them from selling or otherwise misusing it? Perhaps, MySpace has always had access to her information but once its system begins actively exploiting it are we to simply take MySpace and Fox at their word that they will stop with ads? Do we have a choice?
From the standpoint of an advertiser, demographically targeted ads are a wonderful thing. A savvy marketer could use such metrics to save huge amounts of money and effectively streamline an advertising campaign. From the standpoint of a consumer, demographically targeted ads are great, too. Imagine only seeing ads for things that you already liked! The problem arises when we stop thinking of ourselves as “advertisers” and “consumers” and start thinking of ourselves as people living in an era where privacy–for better or for worse–is a very fragile thing.
With MySpace, the information use would be contained to the things you write in your profile, comments, blogs and messages. MySpace probably doesn’t know your social security number or your credit card number; it definitely shouldn’t know your address or telephone number unless you were foolish enough to post it online. However, if MySpace successfully leverages personal data for the purpose of advertising and nobody makes a fuss, why in the world would Google, Yahoo or MSN hold back? How many people browse online with their Yahoo profile open or with their MSN instant messenger program active? How many people use the Google shortcut plug-in to perform the majority of their searches?
In the last of the three scenarios, the data is already being gathered and aggregated. The higher-ups at Google are currently in the midsts of deciding which information is okay and which information is not okay to use, should they launch some sort of demographic targeting tool. Personally, I use that toolbar to visit thousands of sites per month (some of which might make my friends and family blush) and I know for a fact that I don’t want that information being used to define me to advertisers or anybody else. However, if people don’t abandon MySpace in the wake of their new ad targeting, why should Google et all hold back their efforts to proceed with demographic targeting? More likely, if people actually find the new ads helpful and begin using MySpace even more, wouldn’t other online companies privy to such information be foolish not to use it?
If the Internets were so inclined, they could probably write a pretty good biography on you. When they do, though, how will you feel about what is written about you?